|Fall leaves in Silver Creek, which weaves its way around the campus of Silver Creek Presbyterian Church in Northwest, Georgia. Date: October 21, 2012.|
It’s tough being a disciple in Mark’s gospel. They just don’t get it. Time and time again in Mark’s narrative, the disciples misunderstand Jesus and his teachings. They just can’t seem to grasp who Jesus is or what he is doing or what he is telling him he is going to do. It’s tough being a disciple in Mark’s gospel because it is not the disciples, but a demon who actually first sees who the Christ is.
I like to think that each year, when the disciples from the various gospels gathered for their annual reunion, that the disciples from Mark’s gospel always looked across the tables with envy at Luke’s and Matthew’s disciples. In Matthew was apparently just as alarmed as we are at the disciples’ request because he instead read Mark’s account and decided to give the request to the mother of James and John. Luke was probably even more alarmed at the disciples’ opportunistic self-serving quest for advancement for he leaves out this exchange all together.
But not Mark. Here the sons of Zebedee don’t get off the hook like Matthew and Luke so graciously do. Mark has them up front with the spotlight on their misunderstanding. But of course, we wouldn’t know what that’s like, would we?
In today’s lectionary passage, Mark gives us a somewhat comical image of the two disciples, James and John, approaching Jesus, each perhaps anxiously nudging the other to come out and say it. Relunctantly, but obviously loudly enough for other ten disciples to hear it, they say “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
Now the parents in the room today have probably heard this request from their children and know that one must proceed with caution when responding to this wide-open petition. Accordingly, Jesus covers his bases and, rather than responding in the affirmative, tells the disciples to elaborate upon their request. Perhaps gaining a little confidence at not being completely shut down by Jesus, the sons of Zebedee continue: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
I wonder if the disciples were aware of their body position as they asked Jesus this ironic question with their arms outstretched. It is ironic because today’s reading comes after not the first or even the second but the third time that Jesus predicts his death to his followers. Consequently this is not the first or even the second but the third time that they fail to understand the specificity to which Jesus was speaking.
After the first prediction/misunderstanding, Jesus attempts to clarify by naming the very means by which he is to be executed: “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” But to no avail. After the second prediction/misunderstanding, Jesus decides to employ an object lesson and, while embracing a child, say “whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” But it didn’t catch on; not with Mark’s disciples.
Clearly, though, neither of these attempts rid the disciples of their misunderstanding so after this request to sit at Jesus’ left and right hand in his glory, Jesus decides to change his tactics and instead steers the disciples towards water.
In the middle of this passage, within two verses, Jesus uses some variation of the word “baptism” six times! In addition, in the same two verses, he uses some variation of the term cup/drink six times as well. Listen again for the repetition in Jesus’ reply to the disciples: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “the cup that I will drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized…”
Baptism (and water for that matter) is a risky and unpredictable thing in Mark’s gospel. Through Jesus’ repetition of this term, Mark directs us back to the first chapter of his narrative when Jesus is baptized by John in the River Jordan and the heavens open up and God declares, “this is my child, whom I love dearly, in you I find happiness.” Immediately afterwards, Jesus is driven from his baptismal waters into the dessert to be tempted by the devil.
It is on water that the disciples are called to follow Jesus. It is by the water that Jesus gets on a boat so that the crowds do not crush him and the unclean spirits challenge him. It is on the water that the disciples fear for their lives on a tiny boat as the waves beat upon it. It is by the water that Jesus drives the demon into the two thousand pigs who run deranged into the lake.
Clearly, Mark saw water as a place of drama, uncertainty, and improvisation. Mark knew that baptismal waters sometimes force us to get more than a few drops of water upon our heads. Mark’s disciples, I think, were scared of getting wet and perhaps we are too.
My preaching professor at Columbia Seminary tells a story of how at the first church in which she served as a solo pastor, she quickly got the reputation for being rather liberal with the amount of water she used during baptism. In fact, as a gift, one of the congregants gave her a picture frame with three consecutive photographs of a baptism at which she presided. The pictures show her holding the child, splashing the water from the font on the child (and the surrounding area!). The progression of the three photographs shows the elder who presented the child for baptism moving consistently further and further away from the abundant torrent baptismal waters.
Baptism, or, more accurately, what it calls us to do, can be a scary, messy thing. I think Mark knew that and I think Jesus knew it too because, if you listen closely enough, you can hear a hint of fear in Jesus’ remark when he says, “you don’t know what you are asking.” Jesus was scared, make no mistake about it. But rather than move away from the waters of his baptism he does quite the opposite and heads back to the font.
Jesus knew that he came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. He knew that the time would come when he would stretch out his arms and embrace all of humanity. He knew tough times were ahead. I think it is exactly because of that that Jesus brings himself back to the waters in that moment when God looked upon him and said this is my child, whom I love dearly, in you I find happiness. Jesus, in his uncertainty, and fear, and humanness, leans on that promise that was made to him in the waters of his baptism.
|Silver Creek Presbyterian Church near Rome, Georgia. The church was founded in 1875 and is a member of Cherokee Presbytery. Silver Creek Presbyterian Church Website|
It’s tough being a disciple in Mark’s gospel. It’s tough being a disciple, period. We just don’t always get it. So let us, you and I, lead by Christ’s example and head back to the font. As we forge ahead into uncharted territory, we will head back to the font. As we journey with Christ, we will head back to the font. As we journey together surrounded by the waters of Silver Creek, we will head back to the font. As you and I both move forward from our respective faith communities splitting apart, we will head back to the font. We will head back to the font to remember the promise that God makes to each and every one of us to sustain us as we drink the cup that Christ drank and walk with him to wherever he is calling his church to go. And wherever Christ is calling us to go, and however chaotic the waters may seem to be, we will come to the font to remember that when God looked down and said “this is my child, whom I love dearly, in you I find happiness,” he wasn’t just talking about Jesus.